Crazy About Rowing: Is Your Health Club Ready?

The next revolution in group training is upon us as new rowing boutiques proliferate along with demand.

When Debra Strougo Frohlich teamed up with her husband, Eric Von Frohlich, to launch Row House in New York City in 2014, she had no idea that the franchise model would take off the way it did. She just knew that rowing provided a great workout.

By mid-2019, however, the Frohlichs had 250 locations in the U.S., and 100 more set to open by year’s end.

“We’ve taught spin, swimming, bootcamps, CrossFit, and SAQ [speed, agility, and quickness], but, with them all, we never saw so much success, such great results, as with the people who’ve committed to indoor rowing,” she says.

Row House isn’t the only rowing studio catching fire in the marketplace. In urban areas throughout the country, boutiques dedicated to this low-impact, total-body activity are multiplying. CITYROW, iRow, LitMethod, GoRow, and other row-centric facilities are rapidly populating the fitness landscape.

Multipurpose health clubs that want to keep pace with promising new fitness trends would be wise to attend to this development. With the popularity of group X and small-group training (SGT) continuing to rise, especially among Millennials and members of Generation Z, clubs need to respond to consumers’ desires.

No less an authority than the IHRSA Fitness Training Report says it all: Nearly half of all Generation Z members (ages 6-17 years old) enrolled in SGT classes in 2016; and Millennials account for 37.4% of all SGT participants. And, according to IHRSA’s Profiles of Success, that year, 18 million health club consumers—or 26.6% of the total consumer base—signed up for SGT.

Universal Appeal from Beginners to Advance

One of the factors that’s driving the popularity of rowing is its ease of entry—it’s appropriate for just about any demographic.

“Initially, it seemed that the older and less-fit cohorts were most interested in a low-impact exercise that took place on a horizontal plane,” Frohlich says. “But, eventually, we realized that rowing translated well to all sorts of clients—from ultra-fit triathletes who want a smart cross-training workout, to people with stress fractures or other problems with their knees, ankles, or feet, who want a great workout that doesn’t put pressure on anything that aches.”

“We’ve taught spin, swimming, bootcamps, CrossFit, and SAQ [speed, agility, and quickness], but, with them all, we never saw so much success, such great results, as with the people who’ve committed to indoor rowing.”

Debra Strougo Frohlich, Owner

Row House - New York, NY

Rowing is a feature of CrossFit, Orangetheory Fitness, and other popular, high-intensity training concepts, but it doesn’t come with the physiological price tag that weight training and other HIIT-related modalities impose.

“That was a guiding consideration when we were developing the Row House group rowing concept,” says Frohlich. “People had begun to realize that other programs weren’t necessarily giving them the pain-free results they desired.”

Old Equipment Groomed for Group X

Workout concepts often incubate in boutique studio spaces before arriving in mainstream clubs. Rowing may not have caught on yet at some larger facilities, but the proliferation of rowing boutiques has piqued their interest and grabbed the attention of equipment suppliers.

One example is Concept2, Inc., the Morrisville, VT-based manufacturer of Row House’s brand of choice. Long an innovator in machine design, Concept2 created the ergometer for rowers in 1981, and, today, offers a wide range of models for commercial and home use.

Tracy Desrocher, the head of commercial and government sales, says the company has witnessed an increase in rowing nationwide. Sales figures back that up. Statista, the statistics portal, reports that U.S. wholesale sales of all brands of rowers reached a record $85.8 million in 2018.

“Now that they understand it better, people who want an efficient workout are gravitating toward rowing. Today, it’s commonly seen in all types of clubs,” says Desrocher. “Clubs have responded by making sure they have the right equipment on hand. In the past, they’d have one or two indoor rowers, but now four to 10 is normal.”

While rowing equipment has become more sophisticated over time, Desrocher doesn’t regard the improvements as the prime reason for the groundswell.

“It has more to do with the fact that athletes, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts better understand the kind of workout that rowers deliver,” she says.

The pairing of group X and rowers has increased the mechanical demands on the machines, which, until recently, had been used sporadically. Desrocher notes that Concept2, long a proponent of group rowing, has designed its products accordingly. “We’ve always built durable equipment that can sustain constant high use.”

Responding to the marketplace also requires providing the technology that’s key to the group concepts. Instructors, clubs, and consumers all want trackable data, both for the short and long term.

“We’re seeing a growing interest in measurable training data,” says Desrocher. “Our Performance Monitor helps athletes monitor their progress toward their goals. With wireless connectivity to heart rate and fitness platforms, athletes and trainers can easily access workout feedback.”

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Product Proliferation Provides Options

Cascade Health and Fitness, LLC, a Woodinville, WA-based manufacturer of commercial exercise bikes, has only been selling rowers for two years, but it too has experienced a spike in rower sales.

“We’re close to doubling sales this year,” says President John Post. “We see rowing as a growth market in both the retail and commercial sectors.”

He believes one reason for the surge of rowing facilities is the reasonable cost of launching a business. “The entry price for rowing is lower than for other types of exercise studios,” he says.

Like Cascade, some of the larger equipment suppliers also are investing in the format.

Technogym, based in Cesena, Italy, designed its SKILLROW unit with group training in mind; and Life Fitness, of Rosemont, IL, is planning to introduce a new rower soon in response to growing demand.

“We now have two different SKUs in response to the increasing popularity of rowing,” says Becky Jalbert, the global product manager of group training for Matrix Fitness in Cottage Grove, WI. “Our new Matrix RXP rower features a touchscreen interface that enables trainers and users to focus on metrics that motivate them with target training. Goals can be set around steps per minute, 500 m/split, distance, calories, watts, or heart rate. For the budget-conscious consumer, the original Matrix rower has a simpler display that offers all of the rowing metrics.”

More international suppliers are sure to follow, with programming options included.

The Making of Key Class Components

All of this begs the question: What does it take to produce a good rowing class?

To begin with, the experts point out, the duration of the workout should be different than that of other group cardio exercise sessions, such as ones for cycling or treadmill training.

“Our approach is to incorporate rowing as a station within our MX4 functional-training program,” says Jalbert. “Rowing for 45 to 60 minutes is incredibly challenging. Most users can work out for a shorter period of time and still reap the benefits.”

Rowing may be a natural movement, but it’s not a simple one. Uninitiated trainers sometimes don’t realize that, from a training perspective, it’s not always easy to master. And, Post points out, “People who don’t row correctly fail to realize that it’s more than an upper-body exercise. It’s a total-body workout.”

CITYROW, a fast-growing rowing studio franchise based in New York City, offers a workout that combines total-body floor exercises with rowing intervals. Helaine Knapp, the founder and CEO of the company, stresses that the social dynamic of classes is essential. “Rowing is a team sport, and group fitness is a collective experience,” she says. “By emphasizing form and inclusion, we’ve found a sweet spot in the market.”

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Others agree that classes should utilize the same elements that drive other popular group workouts. It should be social, providing group support and camaraderie; it should be trackable via digital tools. And it must be coached in a way that’s both effective and biomechanically safe for a wide range of users.

Frohlich says that Row House put significant effort into fine-tuning the group rowing concept to make it accessible and results-oriented for the modern consumer.

“It wasn’t easy to crack the nut on creating the right user experiences,” she says. “It took us over five years to work it out. We made a commitment to striking an authentic balance—not making it too technical an experience, and not making it too gimmicky a one.”

Assuring a Satisfying Workout Experience—Live or Virtually

To ensure that it can provide clients with the specialized skills required to oversee a group rowing class, the company has established Row House University, and actively solicits rowing coaches with a wide variety of fitness backgrounds.

CITYROW also has its own certification process. “We have a comprehensive training program that each of our instructors must go through,” says Knapp. “We pride ourselves on offering smart and effective programming, so it’s important that our instructors be able to deliver a fitness experience that’s both satisfying and safe.”

Additional programs and certifications for rowing instructors are available, some from the major equipment suppliers. Concept2, for instance, offers motivational and training tools. “We have an experienced staff that can assist with any programming question,” says Desrocher. “We also work with external trainers who coach specific communities of athletes.”

Virtual workouts are another option for guiding classes.

ROW ViGOR, RowPro, RowLab, and others offer streaming, on-demand instruction. LiveRowing, a mobile app, offers connected group workouts specifically designed for the Concept2 rower.

CITYROW, which uses WaterRowers, has an app called CITYROW GO that features streaming classes utilizing a unique combination of rowing and floor mat exercises.

Wexer, the London-based provider of virtual offerings, lists rowing among its more than 900 classes. And some equipment companies that offer plug-and-play SGT programming also provide for rowing.

Rare is the club owner, today, who isn’t at all familiar with rowers. Many just haven’t had any experience yet in making them a go-to exercise option.

“Someone had to take the rowing machine out of the corner and create a satisfying workout. Row House has done that,” Frohlich says. “As more studios open around the country, and more clubs introduce rowing classes, and owners become stronger and fitter, everyone will wonder why no one did it before.”

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Jim Schmaltz

Jim Schmaltz is a contributor to IHRSA.org